Independents work to attract group business
Independents work to attract group business
14 FEBRUARY 2014 7:56 AM

Because they do not receive as many sales leads as branded hotels, independent hoteliers must work hard to offer a unique group experience.

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Attracting group business at an independent property can require some finesse, but sources said providing a unique, tailored experience often helps set independents apart from branded hotels.
“From an experience standpoint, we try and create experiences that are extraordinarily unique so that we have a competitive advantage against the other people they are looking at,” said Jeff McIntyre, partner at Gemstone Hotels & Resorts, an operator of independent, upscale resorts and urban hotels. 
“There are things you can do for the group as a whole that might hit their happy button,” he said. “We can put together things that nobody else on the planet can. When you can scuba dive in a crater and then later that day be skiing and later that day be golfing, and we can package that in a unique way that's tailored to your group, that's pretty powerful.”
At the Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach, Florida, the sales-and-marketing team tries to push the culinary experience, said Jason Kern, director of sales at the property. 
“We do ‘S’mores at the Shores.’ (It has) become very popular with the group segment,” Kern said, adding that every guest receives a S’mores kit upon check in. The property also does wine tastings and a “pairing craft beers with an expert” event. 
Kern said he also tries to sell the floor-to-ceiling ocean views that many of the property’s unique meeting rooms have. 
“More and more people want natural light and non-traditional space,” he said. “Of course they need a ballroom, but when you get them out of that traditional box, they appreciate it. With an independent, they’re designed that way.”
The Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel & Convention Center in Orlando benefits from having a convention center attached, but Elyse Cottle, director of promotions at the hotel, said staff still has to work hard to compete with the big box brands.
One thing that has helped The Caribe Royale stand out with meeting planners is a partnership with Stash Hotel Rewards, Cottle said.
“For a long time, we didn’t have the points component,” she said. “Planners over time started accumulating those points, so we needed something. 
Stash “has been a huge positive for us,” Cottle said. We’re not just offering points to a Courtyard or Marriott. There’s some amazing hotels. Our team has been really behind the program and they use it a lot to close business.”
The RFP process
The request-for-proposal process has become impersonal, Cottle said.
Meeting planners “are in a hurry and there are so many hotels to choose from,” she said, adding that planners want rates and dates before considering a hotel.
Cottle said there are a variety of things The Caribe Royale does to attract group business:
  • bump up the budget for Cvent and StarCite;
  • partner with Visit Orlando;
  • partner with national publications;
  • hire third-party firms that specialize in representing independents; and
  • customize walk-throughs based on the meeting planner’s hobbies.
At the Shores Resort & Spa—where half of its group business is corporate, 30% is association business and 20% is social (weddings, family reunions, etc.)—sales  managers have implemented tactics such as e-blasts and handwritten notes to trade show attendees, Kern said.
“Some of the traditional cold calling things don’t really work anymore,” he said. “But if you can invite them to a nice lunch, that kind of sparks their interest.”
Group pace for 2014 is “very strong,” he added.
“(We have) more on the books now than we did in 2009. Group is coming back,” Kern said. “The trick now is that some of these wonderful groups that got us through the last couple of years, we’re trying to get them back in better space ratio.”
Gemstone’s McIntyre said he focuses on local and regional sales forces at his properties.
“We have two hotels in Utah, and at those hotels we've created a common sales department so that they're out finding business for both locations—both hotels are very different from each other,” McIntyre said. “An independent hotel needs to do that.”
McIntyre continued: “They're not going to get typical brand referrals that come across your desk every day. We get that in New York and we take advantage of it at the Autograph (Collection); however, we have to create that demand. It's not that hard to do if you have differentiating product.”

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